When most kids are asked about school, scenes from school buses, rows of desks and the lunchroom spring to their minds. But not for 11-year-old Stephanie Simmens and her 9-year-old sister Molly.
Their homeroom is actually their home. And when it's time for science, their younger brothers Chris and Sean join them for class and the labs are held in their backyard. For the Simmens kids, it's just another hands-on class taught by their one-and-only teacher: their mom.
"This gives you an opportunity to take control of your child's education and you give them what you think they need and give them the best start that you can," said Melissa Simmens, who has been homeschooling her children for nearly a decade.
Education’s Hottest Trend
Simmens is part of one of the fastest-growing trends in education. According to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Education, the number of homeschoolers has risen from 360,000 in 1994 to 850,000 in 1999. Many experts put the figure closer to 2 million. In earlier years, most homeschooled children came from either ultrareligious or politically liberal families, but now all types of families are teaching at home.
Professor Pearl Kane of Columbia University's Teacher's College says homeschooling is teaching everyone a thing or two.
"The most important lesson we can learn from homeschooling is how important it is to involve parents in their own child's education," Kane said.
"It gets the entire family involved in the family's business," said homeschooling father John Simmens. "We're all there helping one another. And that's probably one of the best things that I like about homeschooling."
What’s Lunch Money?
And then there are the little conveniences.
"You don't have to pay for your lunch and you don't have to got to a locker to get certain things," Stephanie Simmens said.
John Simmens, who labels himself the principal of his kids' school, thinks their home school works better. And he's not alone. The No. 1 reason parents teach their kids at home? They claim the children get a better education at home. The next reason is religious convictions, followed by a desire to avoid bad schools.
Studies suggest the parents may be right about getting a better education. Students taught at home consistently score higher than the national average on the SAT and ACT standardized tests. And other studies have shown that homeschoolers tend to do better in college, because they are more motivated and curious, and they feel more responsible for learning on their own.
Critics of home schools have said that homeschooled kids miss out on learning things like how to get along with peers, tolerate differences and make new friends. But Melissa Simmens disagrees.
Real-Life Field Trips
"My children are not isolated. As a matter of fact, I feel they're a lot less isolated than kids in school because they are out there learning, and they're out there in the world," she said.
Most homeschoolers recognize the importance of plugging into a network of other kids and families, and they use field trips and the Internet to make connections with other students.
And while the homeschooling movement grows, educators are poised to see what happens when a new generation of homeschooled kids go away to college.